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California moves to protect nursing home residents from the coronavirus

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The Navy hospital ship Mercy will begin accepting healthy nursing home patients to ease stress on facilities hit by the coronavirus epidemic, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Friday.
(Carolyn Cole/Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

Responding to escalating concerns about COVID-19 outbreaks in nursing homes, Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday announced that some healthy residents at afflicted facilities will be transferred to the Navy hospital ship Mercy in Los Angeles to avoid exposure to the coronavirus.

The state also is dispatching 600 nurses trained in infectious disease control to assist nursing homes and other adult care facilities to stem the spread of the virus and identify and quarantine residents who test positive as quickly as possible.

Newsom said protecting California’s seniors, considered to be most at risk to become seriously ill, remains the state’s top priority.

“I‘m just giving you an overall sense of the seriousness to which we place our efforts and focus on protecting our most vulnerable, our seniors in the state of California,” Newsom said Friday during his daily COVID-19 briefing in Sacramento.

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Newsom said that 1,266 residents and staff members at California’s 1,224 skilled nursing facilities have tested positive for the coronavirus. An additional 370 residents and staff members at smaller residential care centers regulated by the state Department of Social Services also have tested positive.

The new strategy expands the mission of the Mercy, a ship with 1,000 hospital beds staffed by military doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers that is docked at the Port of Los Angeles. The ship initially was only to accept patients who aren’t sick with COVID-19 from Southern California hospitals, freeing up beds at medical centers that expect to see a surge in those cases in coming weeks.

“I want to thank the president and his entire team for affording us the opportunity to utilize the USNS Mercy differently and specific to the challenges within our nursing facilities and nursing homes,” Newsom said. “They are affording us the opportunity to prioritize that population by using the incredible asset that the Mercy provides us. This will help decompress the system.”

The state has also identified seven facilities across California for COVID-19 patients from skilled nursing homes who do not need acute level care, said Kate Folmar, spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Health.

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Some of the facilities are nursing homes that have created a separate building with separate staff to care for those patients. Others are healthcare facilities that will provide skilled nursing care until patients are no longer COVID-19 positive.

Michael Connors, spokesman for California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, said the group was “very glad to see the Governor giving attention to the desperate plight of long-term care facility residents whose lives are in such jeopardy right now.”

“Yet California must take stronger actions than those he identified to keep residents safe from COVID-19 and the deteriorating conditions in so many long term care facilities,” he said.

CANHR and other advocates have been pushing Newsom to open dedicated facilities for nursing home residents who have tested postive for COVID-19 in an effort to separate the sick from those who are still healthy.

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A list of recommendations that CANHR sent Newsom on Friday also proposes ordering nursing homes with no cases to refuse to take in any new residents, ensuring that all nursing home staff have appropriate protective equipment including masks and face shields, and directing the state and all local health departments to publicly identify homes with positive cases and update the list on a daily basis.

The group also asked Newsom to help families who want to pull their loved ones out of facilities by assisting them in finding home healthcare providers and guaranteeing residents will have a place in the nursing home when the crisis is over.

Los Angeles County’s public health director on Tuesday told families it would be “perfectly appropriate” to pull loved ones out of long-term facilities for their safety, while acknowledging that many families would not be able to provide the necessary care at home.

More than 120 nursing facilities and other communal living institutions in Los Angeles County alone are suspected of having coronavirus infections, including a home in Redondo Beach where four people have died and 38 others have confirmed cases.

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Earlier this week, nearly 100 residents were removed from a skilled nursing facility in Riverside after more than a dozen employees missed two consecutive days of work, expressing fear for their own safety, a county official said. Officials reported 34 positive cases of COVID-19 among patients and five among employees at the skilled nursing facility.

In Alameda County, six residents sickened by coronavirus died and another 35 tested positive at Gateway Care and Rehabilitation Center in Hayward, according to Neetu Balram, spokesperson for the Public Health Department.

To help elderly Californians who aren’t in elder care facilities, including those who tested positive for the virus or have difficulty leaving their home, Newsom announced a new program to deliver eligible residents three nutritious meals a day. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is funding the program and will enlist restaurants across the state to prepare the meals.

Mark Ghaly, secretary of the California Health and Human Services agency, said on Friday said that because of efforts by Californians to stay at home and maintain distance from others, the spread of the coronavirus in the state has been lower than estimates predicted.

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“This is a point of pride for Californians that we’ve done so well with what we’ve been doing,” Ghaly said.

But he warned that COVID-19 cases could rise dramatically if Californians “lose the focus on physical distancing and staying at home.”

Projections by state health officials predict the peak of coronavirus cases to hit sometime in May. Both Ghaly and the governor said the state’s hospital system should be able to accommodate that surge if residents continue to heed stay-at-home orders.

Times Staff Writers Anita Chabria and Matt Hamilton contributed to this report.


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